On Wednesday September 30, Asphalt Green, the beloved Upper East Side swimming center, was able to reopen its lanes after nearly six months. After a summer of confusion and inconsistency from the city as to whether or not the pool could welcome swimmers again, Maggy Siegel, the Executive Director of Asphalt Green, was contacted less than three weeks ago with a go-ahead from the city. “I cried when I found out we could open again,” said Siegel in a phone interview on Monday.
The spring and summer were difficult for the neighborhood institution. During the quarantine, Asphalt Green was forced to furlough over 400 employees and eliminate 20 positions, and a lack of guidance from the city made the closure even worse. Despite the phased reopening plans, indoor pools were not included in any of the phases. “We spent the bulk of the shutdown trying to figure out how and when we could reopen. It took a lot of effort of many people, lobbyists, our employees and members of Asphalt Green contacting the mayor to figure out what was going on,” Siegel explained.
Asphalt Green was able to run summer camps as they usually do, at a limited capacity of 200 kids, but without the ability to get kids in the Olympic-sized pool that makes Asphalt Green so famous. “This is the biggest swimming pool in Manhattan, we provide a valuable service for kindergarteners to senior citizens,” an employee named Tyrone explained.
“This was a summer where we would have yet again taught thousands of kids to swim but we didn’t get that opportunity. Swimming is a life skill and can save a child’s life,” Siegel said.
The city’s policies over the summer seemed not only nonsensical but unfair to indoor pools, Siegel said: “You could get a tattoo in a small room with no ventilation but you can’t swim in a room with a 40 foot ceiling ... All tests and studies have indicated that there hasn’t been a single example of a people getting the virus from being in an indoor pool.”
“It Was Awesome”
But after a difficult summer, the pool has finally been reopened. Operating at 33% capacity for the pool and 25% for the gym, Asphalt Green is doing everything in their power to make sure everyone is safe and they won’t have to close again. Asphalt Green has updated its HVAC air filtration system with CASPR (Continuous Air and Surface Pathogen Reduction), in addition to MERV 13 filters, which is the same technology used in general surgery units in hospitals in the United States. According to Siegel, every lifeguard is wearing a mask; the rules state that once you leave the water, a mask must be worn at all times.
Swimmers seemed enthusiastic about the ability to finally get back in the pool, despite the new rules. “It was awesome,” a swimmer named Georgina said on September 30. “Asphalt Green has been totally communicative with us throughout this time — visiting the pool was exactly like what they said it would be.” With appointments booked for every day, she was surprised there weren’t as many people back on the first day and that some lanes remained empty.
“I thought it was incredible — I swam for an hour, they got us in and out and were very efficient,” David Pugh, another swimmer said, echoing the sentiment. “The place was spic and span and super well managed.”
But some elements of pool life at Asphalt Green are missing. A cafe where people went to socialize before and after exercise is only open for to-go orders, and a women’s water aerobics group that has been running for 27 years still is not allowed to meet under city regulations. “We wrote to City Hall last week about when we can increase our capacity to bring our swim classes and groups back but we need more guidance and information from the city,” Siegel said. “It would be helpful to know what we’re waiting for.”
With the subway not opening until 5 a.m., opening the swim center for people to get their laps in before work at 6 a.m. has been a challenge as well. Siegel explained that they’ve had to have lifeguards and employees picked up by a car service to make it to the Upper East Side every morning. And with over 200 people lining up every morning to swim at 6 a.m., being open and ready for the swimmers is crucial. “It’s the kind of cost you wouldn’t even be able to foresee,” said Siegel. “We’re not even a whole week in yet, but so far it’s going fine. We’re tracking COVID in the city and we will close if we have to, but the Upper East Side seems to be in good shape now.”